Saturday, January 31, 2009

Iraqi translators in a new stage production

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author, most recently, of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, which won several awards and was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2005. He has published The Village of Waiting (1988), a memoir about his years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, and Blood of the Liberals (2000), a three-generational political history, which won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. Packer is the editor of The Fight is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World (2003).

In early 2007, George Packer published an article entitled "Betrayed" in The New Yorker about Iraqi interpreters who jeopardized their lives on behalf of the Americans in Iraq with little or no U.S. protection or security. The article drew national attention to the humanitarian and moral scandal. Based on Packer's first-person interviews in Baghdad, the stage adaptation of BETRAYED tells the story of three young Iraqis, two men and one woman, motivated to risk everything by America's promise of freedom. Hailed as "eloquent" and full of "sharp dramatic impact and beauty" by The New York Times, BETRAYED explores the complex relationship between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim who build a rare bond as they face the daily dangers of working for the American authorities after the 2003 invasion in Baghdad. Joined by a woman who refuses to submit to Islamic law, all three struggle to realize their dreams and hopes for a new world in a country that is collapsing around them.

And now it has been staged by Berkeley's acclaimed Aurora Theatre Company. The play, which is a provocative theatrical adaptation of Packer's eye-opening 2007 essay in The New Yorker, has already won the 2008 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. Robin Stanton helms this astonishing play, featuring Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, Keith Burkland, Denmo Ibrahim, Alex Moggridge, Amir Sharafeh, Khalid Shayota, and James Wagner.

A review of the play can be read here.

New York Times Makes the Pope Majestic

OK, I don't like Ratzinger. We have family reasons dating from early 1940s not to. So when an article about Catholic-Jewish reconciliation was published in Wednesday's New York Times in which he was said to have called on Jews to meet his conciliatory gesture with “ a commitment on their part to fulfill the further steps necessary to realize full communion with the church,” including “recognizing the majesty and authority of the pope and of the Second Vatican Council,” I thought "right.. first a demented infallibility, now he wants to take on some more G-d's attributes and become majestic as well?? And this is supposed to be re conciliatory?"

I was wrong.

Ratzie actually said the following: "Auspico che a questo mio gesto faccia seguito il sollecito impegno da parte loro di compiere gli ulteriori passi necessari per realizzare la piena comunione con la Chiesa, testimoniando così vera fedeltà e vero riconoscimento del magistero e dell’autorità del Papa e del Concilio Vaticano II."

I know enough lame Latin to be aware that magistero and maesta are two different items. Magisterium is Latin for teaching, instruction, or advice, and it means in this context the teaching authority, of the Roman Catholic Church. So the guy wants us to recognize the teaching, not his personal majesty.

Well, I am not sure about us accepting this, Ratzie, but at least it is a relief to know you are not in the process of usurping Adonai.

Friday, January 30, 2009

From "Religion Dispatches" - Translating Rumi

Coleman Barks, Rumi's most popular "translator" in the USA, can neither read nor speak Farsi. Being a poet himself, Barks “re-Englishes” existing translations, releasing, in his own words, “the fire and ecstasy of Rumi’s ghazals” from the stale confines of their scholarly translations.

It doesn't make his critics happy! Read Ryan Croker explaining why they are wrong here.

Barks is also known from his very emotive letter sent in 2003 to President Bush, in which he called for sending translators and peace activists to Iraq instead of bombs: "Now imagine some other way to do it. Quadruple the inspectors, or put a thousand and one U.N. people in. Then call for peace activists to volunteer to go to Iraq for two weeks each. Flood that country with well-meaning tourists, people curious about the land that produced the great saints, Gilani, Hallaj, and Rabia. Set up hostels near those tombs. Encourage peace people to spend a bunch of money in shops, to bring rugs home and samovars by the bushel. Send an Arabic translator with every four peace activists. The U.S. government will pay for the translators and for building and staffing the hostels, one hostel for every twenty activists and five translators. The hostels are state of the art, and they belong to the Iraqis at the end of this experiment. "

You can listen to a sample of Barks "translations" of Rumi's 'What Was Said To the Rose' here

"Slumdogs", idioms and translation

According to reports, an aggrieved Indian has filed a petition in a court against the producers of the film, Slumdog Millionaire

Niranjan Desai, who worked as the press counsellor in the Indian high commission in London in the eighties, makes some good comments on how idioms get lost in mis-interpretations:

"The English cricket team was in India and there was a middle-page spread in an evening paper of photographs of the two teams basking in the sun in Indore, if one remembers correctly. The caption was, 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the sun!' I got a telephone complaint from an Indian with a thick Punjabi accent soon enough. I was asked to immediately take up the issue with the editor because the reporter had dared to insult all Indians as mad dogs ! I tried to explain to this gentleman about the origin of the phrase and assured him that this in no way implied that Indians were mad dogs. He quickly brushed aside my explanation and accused me of being a coward in not standing up to the 'gora'! "

A New Translation of Shalom Aleichem's "Wandering Stars'

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sholom Aleichem.

The Ann Arbor-based translator and author Aliza Shevrin, who has also done eight other Aleichem novels from Yiddish, said in an interview that hers is the first complete English version of "Wandering Stars" - a different translator in 1952 abridged the text and gave it a happy ending completely different from the Yiddish original. Shevrin's fluid translation captures the idiomatic richness of the original Yiddish and brings Aleichem's vanished culture to vibrant life.

Sholem Aleichem is the pen name of Sholem Rabinovitch (1859–1916), the most beloved writer in Yiddish literature, whose most famous work is "The Fiddler on the Roof". Born in Pereyaslev, Ukraine, one of nine children in a poverty-stricken Jewish family, complete with an evil stepmother, Sholom Rabinovitch (the writer’s real name) fled the pogroms and immigrated to New York in 1905. At 16, he took a job tutoring the daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman. He promptly fell in love with his 13-year-old student. After several years the two eloped, to the businessman’s despair. But shortly after reconciling, his father-in-law died and left Rabinovitch, already the author of several stories under his pen name, a vast fortune.

In Wandering Stars, Reisel, daughter of a poor cantor, and Leibel, son of a rich man, fall under the spell of a traveling Yiddish acting company. Together they run off to join the theater but quickly become separated. Reisel goes on to become Rosa Spivak, concert star, and Leibel becomes Leo Rafalesko, theatrical sensation. Kept apart by their own successes and by the managers who exploit their talent, they tour the world until their wanderings bring them both to New York. An engrossing romance, a great New York story, and an anthem for the theater, Wandering Stars is a long-lost literary classic, rediscovered here in a vibrant new translation.

The new translation will be published in May 2009.

Read more here

There is an excpert from the new translation here .

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Inquiry into trial’s use of unqualified interpreter

Comment: Why do I have a sinking feeling that the worse the recession becomes, the more I am going to see of such cases? Hungry students, agencies scraping the bottom, hapless victims and a miscarriage of justice?

By John Bynorth

An urgent inquiry has been launched into how a jury trial of a migrant collapsed after the sheriff discovered the accused’s interpreter had no qualifications.
AN URGENT inquiry has been launched into how a jury trial of a migrant collapsed after the sheriff discovered the accused's interpreter had no qualifications, nor had she previously been engaged in a trial.

Sheriff James Tierney halted the trial of Krzysztof Kucharski on the second day after the freelance interpreter admitted her inexperience in open court, despite reassurances from the interpreting firm that she was suitably qualified. She herself had, at the start of the trial, confirmed that she was able to undertake the work.

The Scottish Court Service (SCS) hired criminology and psychology student Beata Kozlowska from Alpha Translating and Interpreting Services, the country's largest interpreting firm. Kozlowska was to interpret in the case against Kucharski, 24, at Aberdeen Sheriff Court last month, despite not possessing the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI), the minimum industry benchmark qualification for linguists working in the public sector.

Kucharski, a car valet from Aberdeen, was alleged to have repeatedly struck his victim, Fryderyk Polak, on the body with a knife or similar instrument to his severe injury on October 12 last year. He has always maintained his innocence.

Kucharski's defence lawyer, Taco Nolf, himself a qualified translator in two foreign languages, formally objected to Kozlowska's handling of key evidence from two Polish witnesses.
The sheriff then investigated the interpreter's qualifications and deserted the case pro loco et tempore ("for the place and time") and discharged the 15-strong jury. Legal sources have indicated it is unlikely the trial could be re-staged.

The event highlighted how the SCS is continuing to use inexperienced foreign students - without the DPSI or any other interpreting qualifications - despite issuing guidelines in June that interpreters should hold the DPSI with the option in Scots law "or an equivalent qualification of similar standard".

The Sunday Herald revealed this year how mistakes are being made that could lead to miscarriages of justice, and that migrants without the DPSI are exploiting a lucrative trade in court interpreting.

Labour's justice spokeman, Richard Baker, said: "If cases are being lost like this due to translation errors then something is seriously wrong with our prosecution system. There is a principle that everyone is entitled to fair representation but from this evidence it appears this is not the case when some translation companies are involved."

In 2006, Nolf was representing in an assault case at Wick Sheriff Court that collapsed because of an error made by one of Alpha's unqualified freelance interpreters.

The lawyer said: "This is the third trial in which I have been involved that has been deserted because of incompetent interpreters, all of them supplied by the same agency."

In a statement, the SCS said that an interpreter with the DPSI plus Scottish law option qualification was "specifically requested in this case", and that Alpha provided a note to the court explaining why it thought the interpreter had other suitable qualifications, which was accepted.
It added: "The matter has been urgently raised with Alpha Translating, and we are awaiting the outcome of their internal inquiry."

Saif Shah, head of interpreting at Alpha, said it followed the guidelines in providing all relevant details about its interpreters. He added: "We are very disappointed about this development and will be investigating the matter internally and with our clients at the SCS."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

An Englishman’s life in translation

Having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies does not seem all that remarkable – until you remember that this silver-haired Englishman shared a table with Tawfik al Hakim three decades before you were born. Hakim may not be as familiar to western readers as Naguib Mahfouz, but he was a much bigger deal in his time. Then again, Johnson-Davies was a literary figure in Cairo long before Mahfouz made his name.

“Can you imagine,” he says, recalling his early days with the BBC in Evesham, where the broadcast company’s headquarters were relocated while London was bombed during the Second World War. “Here was Britain, with this enormous empire, throughout the Arab world – it didn’t have anybody who spoke Arabic. They did have this one Scotsman, Cowen,” he corrects himself, “but when the war came, there was nobody in Cambridge apart from me and Abba Eban,” he smiles, “who later became the Israeli foreign minister. When I started learning Arabic I was 15; they wouldn’t take me at Cambridge so I went to London, and I went to Cambridge when I was 16. The BBC had obviously contacted Cambridge and said, ‘Do you have anyone studying Arabic?’ And so I went to London, and I remember being taken into the studio to listen to a news bulletin in Arabic, and I didn’t even know what the subject was, let alone understand a word. But they took me on.” It was in Evesham, while living with the Arab employees (“mainly they were Egyptians”) in bunks in an army-managed dormitory, that Johnson-Davies began to learn Arabic for real: “It was a third university for me, and very much better than Cambridge or London. Directly I was released, I went to Cairo...”

Nearly six decades and numerous seminal translations later, Johnson-Davies received the inaugural Personality of the Year Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2007, adding incentive to complete his new book of Emirati short stories in translation, a project begun several years ago to be published by the American University in Cairo Press with support from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage in time for the next Abu Dhabi Book Fair. He is here with the final proofs, to revise them with Juma al Qubaisi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, to catch up with the poet Ahmad Rashid Thani and other friends and to reflect on his relationship with the Gulf. On his way to Abu Dhabi, Johnson-Davies stopped in Doha, and was amazed to find absolutely no sign of the city he first knew in 1951. “I would ask about certain things and say, ‘It was here a long time ago.’ And people would say, ‘How long ago? In the time of Sheikh Khalifa?’ No, Sheikh Ali [bin Abdulla Al Thani]. ‘Sheikh Ali!’ It was as if I was talking about prehistoric times.”

Johnson-Davies originally went to Doha to represent an American oil company: “I had signed a two-year contract, but after a year they said there was no oil in the sea – it was a marine company. And then while I was there, somebody came along to me and said that in Dubai, they want a translator to translate for Sheikh Said bin Maktoum, but they have no money, so are you ready to perform this service? And I said yes; I’d love to see Dubai. So, I went by private aeroplane. There was no airport or anything in Doha, and nothing at all in Dubai, no hotels or amenities. They put me up in a place belonging to the sheikh, and I translated for five days or so, but I saw Dubai in 1951. And then,” he goes on in the same breath, “I came here as the head of Sawt al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), which was a radio operated by the English, an Arabic broadcast, and all the employees were Palestinians, poor and cheerful men. The place was headquartered in Sharjah, but I would travel all round, to Ras al Khaimah, to Abu Dhabi. That was in 1969... So,” Johnson-Davies winds down abruptly, “I had experience very early on here.”
And as he gets up to greet the head waiter at the Beach Rotana, who welcomes him as an old friend, it suddenly dawns on you just how remarkable having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies really is.

Youssef Rakha
The National (UAE)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Copywriting Thoughts

Some decades back, in the magic country of India, a print advertisement for a two-in-one battery was designed. The copy simply said: “Revolution in the world of batteries”. Most of the target users lived in the hinterland, hence translation of the line was essential. The translator took less than half an hour to come up with "Battery ke duniya mein yugantar". The copy chief knew no better. So that line got translated in all vernacular languages. In the Bengali ad, the copy read somewhat faithfully “Battery-r jagate jugantar”. "Jugantar" or "jug er antar" means beginning of a new era.

A smart brand manager, sensing the criticality of the language ads, recommended an advertising pre-test. A handful of consumers living in a small town near Calcutta and its surrounding rural areas saw this ad and said they liked it. When asked what they understood from the ad, all of them said the same thing: "The house of Jugantar is bringing out a new battery". Jugantar, incidentally, was one of the two top Bengali dailies in the state then.

A few questions to ponder here:

Is comprehension equal to persuasion? Does understanding of what is being said or shown in an ad in Hindi or for that matter in English — neither being the language of comfort — ensure automatically that I will be convinced or cajoled by the message? Is comprehension only a necessary condition or is it also sufficient?

The touch point for persuasion does not reside in the language but in what the language envelopes. A language is not merely the letters, the words and their grammar. It is the cultural DNA of a consumer world. To a Bengali or an Oriya, to a Marathi or an Ohomiya, the soft points of titillation are rooted in their native culture encoded in their own language. Sure, the Hindi ad can do a reasonable approximation but it possibly can never do as great a job of persuasion in Bengal or Assam as it will do in UP or Bihar. Even in these days of satellite transmission, enticing someone still needs tribal idioms. Translated advertising thus can never be an adequate surrogate.

Translating Religious Texts

"One who wishes to translate from one language to another by rendering each word literally and adhering to the original order of words and sentences... will end up with a translation that is difficult and confusing. Instead, the translator should first try to grasp the sense of the subject and then explain the theme, according to his understanding, in the other language..." - Maimonides to his translator, Rabbi Shmuel ibn Tibbon

This is elementary to any translation attempt. But every translator faces the dilemma of how far is it permissible for him/her to go? Two conflicting aims play a part here: the aim of faithfully conveying the content of the original, and the aim of making it not only understood to their intended audience but also as attractive and as "natural" as possible in its target text version.

This dilemma is doubly acute when it comes to conveying the teachings of any "sacred texts" to an audience whose primary point of reference is western and secular, because the translator - or "adapter" - is attempting here to bridge two worlds which differ in far more than language and idiom; two worlds which differ in their very conception of intellectual discourse and articulation.

The modern Western mind recognizes no sacred ideas or inviolable axioms. "Taking yourself too seriously," being "dogmatic" and failing to offer a "balanced view" are rhetorical "sins". Nothing is for sure: the author has to keep it light, with a periodic wink at the audience that says, "Hey, guys, we're just throwing some ideas around." So called "sacred texts", on the other hand, unabashedly inform and instruct readers, being written as blueprints for existence, without any self-depreciating humor or moral ambivalence. They presume that the reader will take them seriously and regard the "truths" they convey with reverence.

So the translator - or is it "adaptor"? - has two options:

(1) They can limit their tampering with the original text or idea to its re-articulation in the new language, while preserving the source text's style and approach; or

(2) They can assume, to a certain extent, the tone of modern writing, by attempting to truly translate: "to grasp the sense of the subject and then explain the theme, according to their understanding, in the other language" not only in the dictionary sense of "language" but in the broader cultural-conceptual sense as well.